Fresh off a week-long break, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team (13-2, 2-0 MW) took on the University of California-Davis (5-10, 0-0 Big West) on Sunday afternoon, Dec. 29, coming away with a 74-69 victory. Sunday’s win was UNM’s second outing following the indefinite suspensions of core starters JJ Caldwell and Carlton Bragg.
With the win, UNM improved to 10-0 at home, maintaining the lofty reputation of Dreamstyle Arena, better known as the Pit.
A week prior, the Lobos took on a basement team in Houston Baptist (0-10, 344th in NCAA NET rankings), falling 48-46 in the opening half before putting the game away with a 26-2 run.
As often has been the case for UNM so far this season, the Lobos came out flat again on Sunday, starting 2-for-13 from the field against UC-Davis. Bragg’s usual efficiency on the offensive end was sorely missed in the opening frame, as the Lobos shot just 40.7% from the field in the first half.
"We’re kind of one post player short down there, and I think that takes away our ability to wear somebody down for a full 40 minutes," said head coach Paul Weir after the narrow victory Sunday. "(Corey Manigault is) our last true post player on the roster."
UNM’s season-long turnover woes continued on Sunday with 21 giveaways, including 13 in the first half. Entering the game, UNM was ranked just 290th in the country in turnovers, good for the third-worst mark in the Mountain West.
Senior guard JaQuan Lyle posted his worst game of the season, finishing with just 3 points by way of a 3-pointer to open the game. For the last 37:30 of the game, Lyle was held scoreless while committing 6 turnovers.
Fortunately for UNM, a balanced effort from the Lobos' role players saved the day, as five UNM players reached double figures.
Starting in Bragg’s place, senior forward Manigault posted 11 points and 5 rebounds en route to a 20-point, 11-rebound outing, posting his third career double-double and first of the season.
"I think I can do even better than tonight," said Manigault after a career game at the Pit. "The crowd’s so crazy, I can’t even explain it. They kind of push me (to play that well)."
With Manigault’s help, the Lobos managed to make up for the lack of Bragg’s presence on the boards, out-rebounding UC-Davis 42-34 — including a season-high 19 offensive rebounds. Junior forward Makuach Maluach chipped in 7 offensive rebounds of his own, becoming the only player in the Mountain West to record 7 offensive rebounds in a game this season and finishing with 14 points and 8 total rebounds.
Still, UNM found trouble putting UC-Davis away over the entire 40 minutes. Coming into the game, UCD had already recorded close losses to California and Utah and was playing better than their record would indicate.
For the most part, the second half mirrored the first, with neither team able to pull away. Midway through the second frame, UNM guard Vante Hendrix got into an altercation with UCD’s Damion Squire, causing both teams to leave their seats and ultimately resulting in two double-technical fouls with UNM up 53-52.
UNM has led the nation in both free throws attempted and made, a trend which proved to be the difference Sunday. Manigualt drew an impressive 11 fouls, contributing to UNM’s season-high-tying 35 free throw attempts that lapped the 17 from UCD.
A pull-up jumper from guard Zane Martin with 1:28 left gave UNM a 68-67 lead which they wouldn't relinquish for the remainder of the game. Martin, Hendrix and Maluach controlled the game's final minutes, as the trio combined for 29 second-half points.
Hendrix sealed the victory with a steal and breakaway dunk for the final score of the game, finishing with 13 points and 7 rebounds in just his third game with UNM since transferring from Utah.
"The things he did today with his defense and with his rebounding is what this team sorely lacks," Weir said, noting Hendrix’s importance to the newly-shorthanded Lobos.
Senior Vance Jackson turned in one of his best performances of the season, breaking a year-long shooting slump with a season-high 12 first-half points while adding 7 rebounds.
UCD was led by senior guards Stefan Gonzales (14 points) and Joe Mooney (13 points), who combined for 7 3-pointers and single-handedly outpaced the Lobos' 3-for-16 outing from distance.
Looking forward, Weir was optimistic that UNM — winners of eight straight — would be able to carry its positive momentum despite the suspensions of two key role players.
"We’ve gone through a little bit of change with guys not being in who played 13 games together, and now we’ve got new guys playing a little bit different roles (and) starting for the first time," Weir said. "I'm hopeful that's something in the long run that we’ll still be okay with."
Sunday’s matchup was the last non-conference game of UNM’s season. The Lobos next take on San José State on Wednesday in California after starting 2-0 in conference play earlier this month.
"I think we’re ready," Hendrix said. "If we come out and compete every night, then we’ll be ready."
Joe Rull is the multimedia editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rulljoe